Animal Language Translators Could Become a Reality, But How Useful Would They Be?
If you’ve ever had a pet or even just interacted with an animal in general, then you almost certainly talked to it on instinct. It’s not something to be ashamed of; humans have a natural tendency to anthropomorphize animals, and we can only keep our thoughts to ourselves for so long before we inevitably express our love to them.
But unless you’re talking to, say, a parrot, that animal will never say “I love you” back. It may be able to reciprocate that love in its own unique way, but it will never be able to convey it using the words we know. And even if a parrot specifically says “I love you,” it’s not because it knows what those words mean. Language as we understand it is a purely human gift, and so a communication barrier will unfortunately always exist between us and the rest of the animal kingdom.
Animals may not be able to understand human language, but would it be possible for us to understand theirs? This is an idea that has gained a fair bit of traction within the scientific community, and believe it or not, some actually think it is possible.
Improving Interspecies Communication
Specifically, scientists believe that the AI machine learning technology we use for language translation services like Google Translate could eventually be used to translate animal languages to our own. It’s an ambitious goal, and one that many may be skeptical of, but proponents of this research think it could theoretically allow us to finally understand animals’ thought processes beyond the surface level.
Through the use of neural networks, Google Translate and other services like it, take note of “general principles of grammar and usage” found in numerous example sentences and use those principles to translate all kinds of phrases and sentences, even those that the system sees for the first time. The animal language translation systems that scientists are currently developing aim to build on these algorithms so that they recognize the speech patterns of specific animal species.
One of these systems, which is being developed by Wild Dolphin Project founder Denise Herzing, is meant to specifically decipher the speech patterns of dolphins. These beloved creatures are often considered to be among the most intelligent animals on Earth, and they happen to utilize a complex combination of clicks, whistles, and other sounds to communicate with each other, one of the most apparent examples of a kind of language found in the animal kingdom. Factors like these make dolphins the perfect candidate for this kind of research.
This doesn’t mean that scientists are focusing on understanding dolphins above all else. In fact, efforts to develop AIs that recognize the communication methods of other animals have seen a surprising degree of progress. For instance, back in 2017, an AI managed to interpret the specific calls that marmosets make around 90% of the time. Additionally, that same year saw an AI that successfully determined when a sheep was in pain by analyzing images of its facial expressions.
Hold Your Horses
Despite these promising developments, we shouldn’t get too ahead of ourselves. Making AI that can decipher animals’ speech patterns is a gargantuan task, and it’s not guaranteed that we will be able to make a robust animal language translation system akin to Google Translate.
Part of what makes this area of study so difficult is the lack of consensus regarding animal communication. Although communication methods like the ones dolphins use may seem sophisticated enough to constitute a language, researchers remain divided on whether this is the case. Those who believe animals do not have languages argue that the signals animals use to communicate are entirely utilitarian in nature.
Human languages include a whole host of words and phrases that serve little practical purpose other than to flesh out the conversation. For instance, stating that you agree with someone or that the sky is blue may hold value in whatever conversation you’re currently having, but doing so will not necessarily result in some kind of tangible benefit.
By contrast, animal calls are typically made with a goal in mind, whether it be to attract mates or warn others about incoming predators. These calls are never made to facilitate conversations, and other animals are often not expected to respond. Additionally, animals do not understand abstract concepts the way humans do, which means they mainly communicate information that pertains to tangible entities or their current emotional state.
We Are Not Mind Readers
With this in mind, it becomes clear why some would be doubtful about animals’ capacity to know languages, but the issues go beyond simple semantics. To skeptics, a fundamental problem with animal language translation is that animals do not perceive the world in the same way humans do. Although we can decipher the general purpose behind certain actions or behaviors animals normally perform, we can never truly know what goes on inside an animal’s head at any given moment.
Because of this, it is far from certain that we would get much closer to understanding animals’ thought processes by translating their speech. Being able to understand what animals are literally saying is one thing, but it is another thing entirely to understand the context behind what they express. And ultimately, only the animal can truly know what that context is.
This would present a significant challenge if we had a fully-functioning animal language translator, as it is all too easy for us to assign meaning to whatever animals say when it may not be there. It all goes back to our tendency to anthropomorphize; we’re so fascinated with animals that we inherently want to relate to them on some level, or at the very least understand them. But although we can certainly do so to an extent, we will never be completely privy to animals’ intentions.
The Value of Animal Language Translation
These caveats certainly make animal translation research more complicated, but they don’t necessarily make it moot. Even if we cannot understand everything regarding animals’ inner thought processes, there is tremendous benefit in learning the basics of what they try to convey, as it reduces the chance of us dealing inadvertent harm to them. Animal experts and pet lovers have already picked up on numerous visual and auditory cues that animals use to communicate with us, and this alone has allowed them to form healthy, trustful, and loving relationships with all sorts of animal species.
Not everyone will pick up on these cues at first, however, which is where animal language translators come in. Being able to translate a bark or a meow into a recognizable human word would allow us to recognize animals’ immediate wants and needs much more easily, and many would likely end up empathizing with them more as a result.
But it can be easily argued that we don’t need any of this fancy technology to interact with animals to begin with. We don’t need it to understand animals’ basic wants and needs, and we certainly don’t need it to empathize with them. All we really need to do is put in the time and effort to understand animals on their terms. Having a fully-functioning animal language translator would absolutely be a boon for animal lovers, even if leaves some questions regarding animals’ intentions unanswered. But if such a translator ultimately doesn’t come to pass, then it’s no skin off our backs. Animals will always be worthy of our respect, and the fact that we don’t fully understand them does not change that.
Would you buy an animal language translator? Do you believe they could allow us to understand animals more than we do currently, or do you think the communication barriers between us and animals are simply too great? Let us know in the comments below!